Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers!

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A hitchhiker is caught in a murderous web

His whole life, William Banks has been trying to escape his mother, who wants desperately for him to become a lawyer. Banks wants to paint, and when he gets the opportunity to attend art school in the next county, he jumps at the chance. It’s only forty miles, but it’s a start. Getting to class, however, will be a deadly proposition.
 
On his way there, Banks is picked up by Alf, a down-on-his-luck crook who has dreamed up a plan involving a fire, a burned body, and a dead hitchhiker. By all rights, Banks shouldn’t live to see morning, but a stroke of luck—and a very helpful village girl—help him escape death without his ever knowing he was in danger. Caught up in a bizarre case of missing identity, Banks must think quickly to save his own life—once he finally realizes someone is trying to kill him.
 

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Publié par
Date de parution 01 mars 2016
Nombre de visites sur la page 1
EAN13 9781480443853
Langue English

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Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers!
Ellis Peters
MYSTERIOUSPRESS.COMCHAPTER ONE
‘Well, for Petesakes,’ protested Alf afterwards in indignant self-justification, ‘how was I
supposed to know? There was I, more than an hour behind time already, and no sign of that
cagey bastard Boycott, and with what I had on board, I wasn’t aiming to hang around much
longer, even if I’d still believed he intended showing up, and by then I was damned certain
he didn’t. Gawd knows what put him off, I reckon his thumbs had started pricking. I had to
move off, didn’t I? And then there was this kid, standing on the edge of the run-on, pointing
his thumb down the motorway, solemn as an owl, with this suitcase in his other hand, and
his feet at ten to two, so clean and green I’d swear he’d never even hitched a lift before. In
a grey suit and collar and tie, short back and sides, the lot! I tell you, if there’d been two of
him I should have taken him for a Mormon on his missionary year, nobody else goes around
looking like a tailor’s dummy these days—come to think of it, tailor’s dummies don’t look like
that any more, either—only Mormons. But those boys hunt in pairs, and anyhow, they don’t
hitch lifts. So I thought well, if you need me, boy, maybe you’re what I need, too. And I slid
the old van up alongside, and I said: “How far you going, kid?” and he said: “As far as
Braybourne, with luck, sir!” That did it! Anybody as polite and simple as he looked and
sounded was my luck. I said hop in, so am I. And he hopped.
‘Well, damn it, he looked like the answer to prayer, the spot I was in, and he came out
with his life-story so pat on the way down, you wouldn’t believe. He was a gift from heaven!
‘How was I to know he had a nose like Sexton Blake’s bloodhound, and a squad of
guardian angels tougher’n a Rugby scrum?’
William Anthony Patrick Banks was twenty years old, the only son of his mother, and she
was a widow.
She was, admittedly, a very active and well-heeled widow, full of good works and a prop
of many committees, but she still had time to keep a close eye and a loving hand on Willie,
whose life from infancy, through school and into his late father’s partner’s business, had
been planned for him without overmuch consultation of his wishes. His trouble was that he
was of a sunny, guileless and contented disposition, not at all given to raising objections,
and by the time he realised that he was in danger of being stuck in that office for life, and
ending up a solicitor and a partner in his turn, it was almost too late to break out of the shell.
Moreover, he was so well-brought-up, so amiable and so genuinely fond of his mother that
almost all the courses open to more ruthless young men were impossible to him. He
couldn’t just say that he’d discovered he didn’t want to be a solicitor—she would have taken
it as a wounding insult to his father’s profession. He couldn’t state tersely that he had to get
away from her shadow and stand on his own feet—she would then have made it impossible
for him to do any such thing by being heart-broken and forgiving. Forgiving, that is, with the
implied suggestion that she was about to smile and wave him away bravely and with her
blessing, and go into a mortal decline as soon as he was out of her sight, of course without
a word of complaint. Nor could he simply vanish without trace—she would have had the
entire police force of the county out looking for him.
So he went about it in his own fashion. Anything his father had done was admirable and
worthy in his mother’s eyes, and to quit his father’s profession in order to pursue his father’s
hobby would not be an offence. She had several of William Moncrieff Banks’s execrable
water-colours and one very odd oil framed about the house, and rated them as the offspring
of a great lost talent. Willie took to oils, and began to produce canvases certainly no more
alarming than his father’s, but a good deal more highly-coloured, and in an abstract style
which allowed remarkable rapidity of execution, and sometimes achieved, as a result, fresh
and clean colour effects. Occasionally he even liked the results, to his own astonishment,and that made it all the more convincing when he suddenly confided to her that painting was
what he wanted, and must have if he was to be happy, and that with her permission he
proposed to start learning his business properly, and wanted to enroll in a good School of
Art.
He had London in mind, but she, once she had digested the idea of parting with him at all,
quickly cut down on the distance. There was a palatial new art school in the next county,
where one thriving market town and four or five outlying villages were halfway through the
painful process of being transformed into a new town. Willie closed with the suggestion
thankfully. Forty miles was a start. You can always add another forty to the first instalment,
after a cautious interval.
He wrote off, early in the year, for a prospectus of the courses offered by the New
Braybourne School of Art, and his mother accepted this as evidence that he had actually
enrolled. He hadn’t. But he let her have a hand in finding him respectable lodgings in a
house approved by the school itself, and that satisfied her. After Easter she saw him off by
the bus, he having declined further fuss or a taxi, and for all her reluctance to let go of him
at all, was able to reassure herself that she had merely let him out on a long leash, which
could be wound in at any time she pleased. She thought, of course, that he had boarded the
evening train south, and would go straight to his landlady’s house and his chosen class.
Willie, on the other hand, foresaw that for a time he was going to need all his savings, and
with railway fares as high as they were, and the service station on the motorway only a few
hundred yards from the bus route, saw no reason to spend good money on a more formal
method of travel.
Which is how he came to be standing on the edge of the run-on, pointing his thumb down
the motorway, clean and green in his grey suit, with his feet at ten to two, when Alf Jarrett
gave up waiting for his defecting passenger, and came driving along past the service
buildings and the petrol pumps and the coach park, did a double-take at this improbable
bourgeois apparition, and pulled up beside him.
‘How far are you going, kid?’ he said, leaning out.
He was not a big man, but compact and broad, with a weathered, froggy face under a
peaked cap, and a bent nose that gave him a droll and slightly surprised look. He could
have been an experienced groom, or a fairly prosperous scrap-dealer, or a small farmer. At
any rate, he appeared friendly and well-disposed, which was the main thing. And since he
was obviously Willie’s elder by at least fifteen years, Willie addressed him according to
custom: ‘As far as Braybourne, with luck, sir!’
‘Hop in,’ said Alf, ‘so am I.’
Willie hopped.
By the time they were halfway down the forty-mile run, cruising along steadily but fast in
the centre lane, Willie had confided a good part of his life-story. He was not generally given
to this exercise, but pick-ups like this, in common with train journeys, lend themselves to
confidences which need never produce any echoes, since the parties are unlikely ever to
meet again. And the large, misshapen brown ear cocked towards him seemed to attract
conversation.
‘So your Ma thinks you’re going to this art school,’ said Alf, shaking his head over the
deception, but grinning without noticeable disapproval, ‘and you ain’t intending any such
thing. Well, I won’t say but what mothers can be a bit of a problem when they’ve only got
one. And you won’t be that far away. If you’re going to stay in Braybourne?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Willie. ‘I couldn’t just ditch her and go off into the blue. I’ll be close by if she
gets desperate. But art was just one way out. It isn’t my forte.’
‘What do you fancy, then?’
‘Oh, I’ll just get a job, practically any job, I haven’t thought yet. Not in an office, if I can
help it.’‘You’ve got nothing fixed up yet, then? Got to have a look round first, I suppose.’
‘That’s it exactly,’ said Willie.
‘You got somewhere to stay in town? It’ll be past eleven, time we get in. But maybe you
got friends there?’
Alf had round, earnest eyes that showed a gleam of white all round the iris when passing
lights spilled into the van.
‘No, I don’t know the place at all, but I’ve got a room waiting for me. With a Mrs Dutton
who takes in art school students. I thought I’d better let my mother in on that part of it. You
know how they are about who’s going to cook and manage for you, and what sort of
household are you going into! Booking with an approved house seemed to be an insurance.’
‘Yeah, keep her happy, eh? Where is this place? I’m on the late side, myself, and my
missus will be waiting and worrying, but maybe we can see you right.’
‘Do you know New Braybourne well?’
‘Nobody knows New Braybourne well,’ said Alf feelingly. ‘Used to be a nice market town
with a real centre and good shops, and a clutch of villages round it, not the best farm-land
ever, but not bad, neither. Now it’s halfway from somewhere to nowhere, with a whacking
great new road system that uses up half the available ground, and umpteen schools, about
as pricey as Buckingham Palace, only gimcrack, and two estates of rabbit-hutches and a
couple of tower blocks, and a few oddball private blocks of flats in among the rest. But
mostly traffic islands. At traffic islands those boys are real good! What’s this address of
yours? I might know it if it’s an old ’un.’
‘Dutton, 35, Rainbow Road, Norden Common,’ said Willie obligingly.
Alf whistled. ‘Norden, that’s one of the old villages they’ve taken in. It’s a good way out. I
doubt the buses will be running, time we get in. She expecting you tonight?’
‘It’s sort of left open. She knows I’m coming down tonight, but I don’t suppose she’s going
to sit up all night for me, or worry if I don’t show up till morning,’ said Willie easily. ‘If I have
to book into some hotel, I can always telephone her.’
‘Oh, you’ve got a number for her?’
Willie had, and cheerfully shared it. Alf’s rubbery lips moved, memorising. He had a very
good memory.
‘You won’t make it tonight, that’s sure. I know the buses, they pack it in after eleven. But I
got an idea, and it does me a favour, as well as you, if you’re on. My missus has been
waiting an hour for me right now, and I don’t aim to lose any more time than I need. I was
supposed to run into the town, I mean the real old Braybourne, and drop off a parcel of stuff
at my sister’s place, in a block of flats there. I’ve got their spare key, and they’re back from
an Easter trip tomorrow. I can give you the key, and the address, and the parcel, and you
can save me twenty minutes going out of my way, and sleep in the flat overnight. Why pay
for a hotel, laddie, if you’re starting out on your own with no job in hand? All you need to do
is post the spare key back through the letter-box when you leave in the morning. How about
it?’
‘That’s terribly kind,’ said Willie, touched and impressed, ‘but I couldn’t possibly take
advantage of your relatives, when they don’t even know about it. I mean, they might not like
it at all, if they knew.’
‘Sure they would! You don’t know my sister Jess. She’d say go ahead, and bless you! And
it would save me going along there.’
‘Well, of course, I’ll be glad to take the parcel for you and leave the key, in any case.’
‘Then you might just as well make yourself at home for the night,’ pointed out Alf
reasonably. ‘You won’t find it easy to get a room, anyhow, this time o’ night. I’m surprised
you left it so late starting.’
‘It had to fit in with a train time,’ Willie explained almost apologetically, ‘and there aren’t
many on our line, it’s about due for the axe. It was either this morning or tonight. You see,